Controversial and mysterious

Even the source of the name is unclear. By most accounts, the term comes from the French "la danse du ventre," bestowed by Napoleon's soldiers when they came across the Ghwazee tribe of Egypt, who would perform the unique belly movements as part of their street entertainment. According to Yael Gilboa, a multimedia content consultant when she is not performing and teaching as her belly dancing alter-ego Ghazalla, the French came into contact with these street dwellers, who dressed in a revealing manner, while they probably did not meet the more upper class Egyptian women who danced in a similar way but dressed in a less showy style. As the form developed in local cabarets in the Arab world, more and more Western elements were added. In what would become typical of the meeting between East and West, the ancient and complex tradition of Middle-Eastern dance became the "hoochie coochie" dance and was made popular for Western audiences at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, where "Little Egypt" shimmied and shook in a way that shocked and delighted American audiences. In reality, Middle Eastern dance involves a number of basic movements, of which the belly shake is only one. The movements are often simple and punctuated with frequent shimmying. Dance styles differ according to region. While Persian dance is delicate, often done on toe point and similar to Hindu dance, other forms, such as Turkish dance, are more athletic. In general, the steps are circular and flowing, sometimes involving use of veils or a pole. According to Gilboa, the pole dance may in fact date back to a male Egyptian dance called "Tahtib" which used a long staff as a prop. Gilboa also believes that the art form in general dates back to pagan times when the dance was probably performed as part of a ritual service. It makes sense then that gypsy tribes, originating in India, probably had a great deal of influence on the form. Byzantine and Islamic culture made their marks on the dance, primarily by segregating the sexes. It no longer played a religious role and instead became an important part of family celebrations, with professional dancers providing their services when needed. And Gilboa emphasizes that in most countries the dancers would entertain the women separately from the men. Islamic values in Turkey meant that during the Ottoman Empire, the art form was mostly preserved by Christian and Jewish women, she explains. It is perhaps ironic then, that the first professional belly dancers in Israel learned their craft in the United States in the 1970's, bringing their expertise home and then training others. According to a recent article in the Guardian, Attallah Abu al-Sibbah, the new Palestinian culture minister, plans to ban belly dancing, which he is quoted as saying people do "in secret." Secretly or in front of a huge audience, it appears that Middle Eastern dance will keep on shaking for a long time to come.